Twenty and Eight Wandering Jews.

(Photo by Steve Villano, at The National Memorial for Peace & Justice, Montgomery, Ala.)

Jews traveling through the States of the Old Confederacy to work for human rights and learn first-hand about the continuing struggle for Civil Rights and the centuries long Holocaust against Black people—millions of whom were kidnapped, shackled in heavy irons and died the bottom of the Atlantic ocean, enroute to being enslaved in America—is nothing new.

While many fellow Jews over the last century sacrificed much, including their livelihoods and their lives, to stand up against White Supremacy and injustice, we, as Jews—with clear exceptions like the Rabbis who marched with Dr. King, or civil rights activists like Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman– didn’t do enough to fight the brutalization of Black Americans as much as we like to tell ourselves that we did.

Many social activist Jews saw the White Supremacist terror against Black Americans as a replication of the Nazi terror vs. the Jews.  Yet, others choose silence as a way of staying “safe,” particularly large numbers of Southern Jews, or the “good Jews,” as Mississippi’s racist Senator Theodore Bilbo called them, who joined the “White Citizens Councils” for self-protection, and anonymity.

Jews like me, are, after all, White-skinned.  Hitler’s biggest and deadliest lie was that we were a separate, inferior race—a murderous myth which Hitler and the Nazis concocted to separate us from other Caucasians, making us more suitable for extermination, as he noted in Mein Kampf, indigenous people and Blacks were in America.    Whoopi Goldberg was right, despite being wrongly attacked for her honesty.  We were, and are White. To buy into the “Jews as a separate race” fiction, is to swallow Hitler’s elemental lie. We are a people, a civilization, a culture, a religion—but not a race.

In fact, as Professor James Whitman writes in “Hitler’s American Model,” and Isabelle Wilkerson reiterates in “Caste,” Hitler was furious that the Jim Crow laws of some 30 US States—upon which the Nuremberg Laws were based—didn’t go far enough, because they only applied to Blacks, not Jews.    It was easier for Jews to hide in plain sight among American White Supremacists, for our own safety, because we were White, like they were.  Until, of course, they discovered we were different; we were Jews, as Leo Frank found out in Georgia, in 1915.

So, in the week before the 55th Anniversary of the Assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, more than two dozen Jews from Santa Rosa, California’s Congregation Shomrei Torah, including our Louisville, Kentucky-born Rabbi, George Gittleman, followed in the footsteps of the Freedom Riders, and John Lewis and marchers from Selma, Alabama to Montgomery, and walked through the hallways of the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis, where Dr. King was gunned down and died. 

We walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge—named for a Confederate soldier who killed Blacks and US Government soldiers—passing the very spot where John Lewis, and dozens of other men, women and children as young as 11 years old were beaten nearly to death 58 years ago, their blood running down into the dark Alabama River below.

We ran our hands over the big thick stones on the sides of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church, remembering that just a few feet behind them, in a basement level Ladies Lounge, four little Black girls, ages 14, 14, 14 & 11, were giggling and getting ready to go upstairs to pray on that Youth Sunday 60 years ago, when they were blown to bits by killer KKK bombers.  The big, thick church stones that still stand, couldn’t cradle those babies, just like the massive girders of the World Trade Center that are no more, couldn’t protect nearly 3,000 other humans against mass murder.

We were left numb by the Equal Justice Initiative’s Legacy Museum and Lynching Memorial in Montgomery, where huge steel slabs hung like human beings from trees, remembering the thousands of Black men, women and children lynched by lawless vigilantes and law enforcement officials in counties and states throughout the South and Midwest.  I was overcome with grief, and my mind fled to Jerusalem 32 years earlier, when I first visited Yad Vashem, Israel’s Memorial to the Six Million, and walked through the darkened entryway where one-million tiny lights flashed to commemorate the one million children murdered by the Nazis.   The feeling of the unimaginable slaughter of humanity was precisely the same.

I could barely speak for the remainder of the day.  The rhythm of the Paul Simon song, “Hearts & Bones,” haunted me, and my own new lyrics to his masterpiece wrote themselves.  With proper attribution and gratitude to singer/songwriter Paul Simon, my thoughts are below:

Twenty and Eight Wandering Jews.

   (An adaptation of Paul Simon’s “Hearts & Bones.”)

Twenty and Eight wandering Jews,

Searching for answers in all of this news;

Atlanta, Montgomery;

Birmingham, Memphis;

River of Blood, off the old Selma Bridge.

On the first leg of a journey

That started centuries ago;

The arc of a tragedy,

Tornadoes twisting in the heavy air.

Human beings, treated like they’re owned;

Hearts & bones,

Hearts & bones,

Hearts & bones.

Thinking back to Race history and more,

Looking back at the lynchings ignored.

Children were murdered,

The act was outrageous,

The hate was contagious,

It burned through the land…

These events surely have an effect

On what’s happening in Nashville today;

The arc of a long, Lost Cause,

Stripped of its’ red-stained gauze.

Hate like lightning,

Striking ‘til it moans…

Hearts & bones,

Hearts & bones.

No, No, No;

We say, “Why?”

Why were these human souls

Murdered for the color of their skin?

Tell me, “Why?”

“Why won’t you love me for who I am, where I am?

They said: 

“Cause that’s not the way the world is, maybe;

Jews know how the world is, baby.”

Twenty and eight wandering Jews,

Returned to our everyday lives;

To protest injustice,

Work for equality,

And speculate who’s being damaged the most…

Over time, we’ll determine

If reparations will be a “reward”,

For babies blasted mere minutes

Before they’ve sung for the Lord…

You take two humans

And force them into chains—

Hope cannot be restrained…

Hearts and bones,

Tikkun Olam;

Hearts and bones,

Tikkun Olam.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *